Friday, October 7, 2011

'Fright Nights' - A Halloween Countdown

*This article was previously published in the October 2011 issue of ICON Magazine. It has been republished with permission.

Gear up for Halloween with a choice selection of superior horror movies.
By R. Kurt Osenlund

I have a lot of tradition films – movies I love to revisit annually. Most of them, naturally, are tied to holidays. For Christmas, I don't think it will ever be anything other than National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation, which for years my family and I watched on a damaged VHS tape complete with Sears and Pennsylvania Lottery commercials circa 1992. For Thanksgiving, I've continually made it a point to play Peter Hedges's Pieces of April while toiling away in the kitchen, no matter how many other folks in the house have complained that they'd “rather be watching the parade.” For Halloween, I have a couple of go-to favorites, including Roman Polanski's Rosemary's Baby and none other than Halloween, the immortal progenitor of the slasher genre.

Halloween is the best movie holiday because there isn't another so firmly and unmistakably tethered to a whole type of movie. Horror films are as integral to October as summer tentpole films are to July; however, July doesn't boast one day on which its movies can be celebrated. Horror interest spikes as All Hallows' Eve draws close, with bump-in-the-night junkies programming their best spooky and shadowy marathons. For those still looking for a lineup, the following group of 10 may serve you well. Since a few are genuinely disturbing, I don't know if I'd recommend adding them to your own list of tradition films, but they're all guaranteed to deliver the goods, by which I mean goosebumps.

Alien (1979)

The Alien franchise really has the bases covered. James Cameron's Aliens is, for my money, one of the best action movies ever made, and Ridley Scott's original, Alien, is surely among the greatest of all horror films. Introducing the masses to the brilliant, curvilinear artistry of Swiss designer H.R. Giger, and serving as an indispensable godparent of the Final Girl phenomenon, this lonely, perfectly-mounted tale of space terror is owed many a debt in terms of influence. Like its successor, it's a masterpiece of atmosphere, a claustrophobic, ever-tightening beauty of dark hallways and air shafts that act as the arteries of what often feels more organism than film. As each crew member of the Nostromo ship is picked off, the knot in your gut intensifies (and that whole chest-bursting scene certainly doesn't help matters).

Antichrist (2009)

Both booed and marveled upon at the 2009 Cannes Film Festival, Lars von Trier's Antichrist is a polarizing bit of author therapy – a provocateur's response to his own crippling depression, manifested as a thriller-cum-couples-counseling-psychodrama. Naysayers dismiss the movie – about a couple, He (Willem Dafoe) and She (Charlotte Gainsbourg) mourning the death of their toddler son – as a pretentious pile of artsy indulgence but, through these eyes, it's a work of staggering genius, its unlikely beauty surpassed by its devastating implications. Setting the film in a grave and desolate woods he calls Eden, von Trier deals in fundamentally obvious themes of nature and religion, but the true chill of Antichrist lies in the research of Gainsbourg's character, who before getting pregnant initiated a scholarly study of witchcraft and gynecide. What that means for what takes place in the film proper is profoundly unsettling, and I couldn't shake its impact for weeks. That's more than I can say for most movies.

Audition (1999)

Speaking of violence and women, this painstaking cult favorite from Japanese filmmaker Takashi Miike has come to be thought of as a cautionary tale for single men on the prowl. God forbid the girl a bachelor takes home turns out to be anything like Asami (Eihi Shiina), the meek-turned-malicious naif a lonely widower (Ryo Ishibashi) attracts after staging a phony film audition. Unlike American hack Eli Roth, whose similarly-structured Hostel is essentially an inept fanboy homage, Miike presents an engaging mystery before diving into the shock and gore of his much-discussed climax (which, admittedly, is relatively tame 12 years later). Like many titles in this list, Audition blurs the line between reality and nightmare. At the very least, it'll change the way you look at metal wire.

Dawn of the Dead (2004)

These days, director Zack Snyder is best known for using green screens to bring to life his masturbatory geek fantasies, but his best film remains his debut, a hip, polished and almost relentlessly intense remake of George A. Romero's mall-set survival story about zombies run amok. Showcasing a cleaner assemblage of Snyder's technical and stylistic gifts, and featuring a cast of actors who give real, commendable performances (indie princess Sarah Polley is the affecting standout), Dawn of the Dead is far better than a mainstream splatter picture needs to be. Its extended opening, which establishes an environment of fear and frenzy and slowly reveals just how far the zombie sickness has spread (read: it's everywhere), ranks high among the most gripping introductions of the 2000s.

The Descent (2005)

Preying on our morally ambiguous drives to kill or be killed, and our instincts to recoil at tight, confining spaces, Neil Marshall's The Descent, like Alien, works to turn your screening room into a constricting prison. The film would likely be stellar even without the jolting, second-act introduction of subterranean monsters, who start feeding on a pack of girls who go spelunking in an uncharted cave system, and may or may not represent the girls' emerging and unforgiving animalistic impulses. The lighting design is beautifully realized, mixing glowsticks, flares, and rare peeks of sunlight with the directional glow of miner's helmets. We only see what these poor, poor ladies see, making whatever lurks just off screen all the more terrifying.

Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978)

A sci-fi epidemic movie akin to Dawn of the Dead, the 1978 remake of the 1956 film Invasion of the Body Snatchers keenly taps into our innate fears of world domination and loss of identity while shrewdly satirizing the paranoia and selfishness often associated with the 1970s. Director Philip Kaufman guides a talented cast that includes Donald Sutherland, Brooke Adams, Leonard Nimoy and Veronica Cartwright. By the end of the movie, which sees the human race get rapidly replaced by a race of alien doppelgängers, the actors' faces are embedded in your memory, none more than Sutherland's, which appears, mouth agape, in a haunting beast of a final shot.

Let the Right One In (2008)

Already remade for American audiences, the minimalistic Swedish stunner Let the Right One In set the bar high for future vampire films when it debuted three years ago, depicting the surprising love story between a bullied boy (Kåre Hedebrant) and a young girl (Lina Leandersson) who just happens to be a centuries-old vampire. Artful and even poignant, Let the Right One In thrives thanks to an unhurried pace and an incredible collection of wholly arresting images. You might get more bloody bang for your buck in the latest Final Destination installment, but surely you won't find sights so unforgettable as a vampire's victim bursting into flames without warning, or the bullied boy's tormenters getting their grisly comeuppance in a silent scene of extraordinary compositional savvy.

Nosferatu (1922)

You haven't seen the face of horror until you've seen Max Schreck as Count Orlok, the nightmarish improvement on Count Dracula who lurks in the wings in this unauthorized adaptation of Bram Stoker's classic bloodsucking saga. Directed by the great F.W. Murnau, this seminal German Expressionist film can still rattle nerves nearly a century after its production, depicting Schreck as that albino, bat-like, beclawed demon who's become an eerie icon in popular culture. Depending on which version you come across, you may or may not see the film in multi-colored hues denoting varying times of day. In any case, the stark shadowplay and on-location settings will lend themselves greatly to the experience, which should certainly be had by any true horror fan.

Repulsion (1965)

Before there was Black Swan, there was Polanski's Repulsion, a stirring, black-and-white psychosexual thriller about an unassuming virgin whose repressed past and nightmares of the flesh return to her in the form of vivid hallucinations. As the deeply damaged central character, Catherine Deneuve – in a star-making role – finds the right note of vacant, switched-off madness, her nods, coos and petrified stares perpetuating the film's mystery. A Rosemary's Baby precursor, Repulsion showcases Polanski's aptitude for staging action in ominous residential spaces, and becomes all the more disorienting when it takes the twisted POV of the lead. One need only glance over the other titles in this list to see the scope of Repulsion's influence – it played a key part in fusing horror with feminine sexuality.

The Ring (2002)

Purists probably swear by Hideo Nakata's 1998 Japanese original, Ringu, but Gore Verbinski's remake, The Ring, is a startlingly handsome and graceful Westernization which, for this viewer, proved literally hair-raising. The film may well toss sense and logic right out the window, but hell if young Samara's (Daveigh Chase) indelible emergence from a leaky television isn't one pin-you-to-your-seat moment, the tip-top among many fine, frightening scenes. Latter-day scream queen Naomi Watts was revealed to mass audiences through this blue-filtered beauty, which tells the story of a girl, a well, and a video tape that kills you a week after you watch it. So much for feeling relief when the credits roll.

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